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Zimbabwe Arrests Farm Workers Who Volunteered for Charity Group

Seventeen former farm workers serving as volunteers for a Zimbabwean charity were charged Wednesday with violating security laws that were approved earlier this year. The men were arrested last week and have now been remanded in custody until September 17.

Lawyers for the 17 men say they have been charged with recruiting militia, undergoing military training, banditry and sabotage.

The men were building a refugee camp about 30 kilometers west of Harare in the once productive Mazowe Valley.

The camp was being built on land donated by a farmer who has abandoned his farm and was to become a place of refuge and self-employment for farm workers, tens of thousands of whom are in the process of losing their jobs. It was being built under the auspices of a local charity, the Farm Communities Development Trust.

The detained men were volunteers working for the trust. The deputy head of the organization, Bigson Gombers, was arrested at his home and has also been charged.

The law under which the arrests were made, the Public Order and Security Act, was rushed through parliament ahead of presidential elections in March.

Legal experts say it is even harsher than the colonial law it replaced, which President Robert Mugabe kept on the statute books after independence from Britain in 1980.

Before the seizures of most white-owned land began 31 months ago, there were about one point eight million people living on the commercial farms.

The Commercial Farmers Union estimates a third of the farm-worker families may have already lost their jobs and homes.

The workers trade union on Wednesday said tens of thousands more workers are now being paid off with terminal benefits and most are then forced to leave their homes on the commercial farms.